Florence art guide

Michelangelo Buonarroti


Painter, sculptor, architect and poet
Caprese 1475-Rome 1564

The complete artist, he expressed the ideas of the Renaissance, passing from "realism" to the "beautiful" as the quintessence and glorification of the capacity of man.
After completing his humanistic studies, he started work in Ghirlandaio's workshop in Florence while still only a youth (1488); his interest in ancient sculpture soon led him to frequent the garden at Saint Mark, where the Medici family had already put together a sizeable collection of classical statuary. His first attempts at sculpture were noticed by Lorenzo dei Medici, who took Michelangelo to live with his family in his house in Via Larga (now Via Cavour), where he was in close contact with the circle of political and cultural personalities (like Poliziano) that gravitated around the court. Michelangelo was to be a protégé of the Medici family for the rest of his life, even when he fought against them during the famous siege of Florence in 1530.

doni tondo
Uffizi - Doni Tondo

The Battle of the Centaurs and the Madonna of the Stairs (1490-92 Museum of Casa Buonarroti), where the transition between the 15th century and classicism can clearly be seen, date from this early period. He fled from Florence in 1494 to escape Charles VIII and went to Bologna where, after seeing the reliefs by Jacopo della Quercia, he sculpted a bas-relief for the Duomo of San Petronio.
He returned to Florence in 1495 and - in the same period in which Savonarola was preaching against luxury and pagan art - he created the Drunken Bacchus (Bargello). Then he went to Rome where he sculpted the famous Vatican Pietà. He came back to Florence between 1501 and 1505 and, at the suggestion of Leonardo, proceeded to carry out a series of masterpieces: the Doni Tondo (Uffizi), the Pitti Tondo (Bargello), the lost cartoon for the fresco of the Battle of Cascina and the marble statue of David (Galleria dell'Accademia), which was placed outside the entrance to Palazzo Vecchio as a symbol of the Second Republic as well as of the Renaissance ideals of free men and masters of fate.

Michelangelo - Portrait

On Michelangelo's return to Rome, Pope Julius II gave him a commission that was to weigh heavily on him for over forty years: the monumental tomb of the Pope, conceived as a typical classical mausoleum that united sculpture and painting. Michelangelo spent eight months in Carrara to choose the most suitable marble but by then the Pope was more interested in the project of St. Peter's Church, which had been entrusted to Bramante, so that Michelangelo, disappointed and jealous, left Rome and went for a short period to Florence and then Bologna, where he was later to make his peace with the Pontiff.
In 1508 the Pope gave him an extremely important task to carry out: the decoration of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The five hundred square metre area was decorated by this man in four years of very hard work and this Neoplatonic interpretation of the Book of Genesis fully expresses the artistic ideals of the Renaissance. Julius II died in 1513 which brought the problem of his tomb up again: the second commission led to the creation of the Moses and the two Slaves in the Louvre but again it all came to nothing.

san lorenzo
New Sacristy of St. Lorenzo

In the years that followed he worked on the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence, again under Medici patronage, first on the design for the facade (1516, later interrupted) and then on the construction of the New Sacristy (1520-34) - opposite the Old Sacristy by Brunelleschi -, with the tombs of Giuliano Duke of Nemours and Lorenzo Duke of Urbino. Here the rules of composition and the sense of space of Humanism are placed in discussion and the dialectic relationship between the architectural elements already expresses the Mannerist doubts. Last of all, again at San Lorenzo, he worked on the project for the Laurentian Library (1524, but not completed until late in the century with the collaboration of Ammannati)), a real bridge between the high Renaissance and the Baroque style.
Between 1527 (the Sack of Rome) and 1530 (the siege of Florence), Michelangelo worked for the Florentine Republic directing the building of the fortifications but, with the fall of the city to Clement VII, he went back to work for the Medici family. He resumed his work for the tomb of Julius II and sculpted the four unfinished Captives Academy. Nor were these to decorate the tomb of the Pope, whose final version - much of it carried out by Michelangelo's assistants - was not complete until 1545 when it was placed in St. Pietro in Vincoli.
His father died in 1534 and Michelangelo left Florence forever. He then accepted a commission from Clement VII to fresco the wall behind the altar in the Sistine Chapel with the Last Judgement (1536-41). The final act of the life of man is shown here as a cosmic tragedy; classical iconography and perspective are completely upset and we find the intellectual and moral security that had given the Renaissance its solid basis disappearing alongside its formal ideals. In their place we find a suffering and desperate human race, terrified at the thought of being condemned: this vision was almost certainly formed among the Roman spiritual circles that the artist frequented with Vittoria Colonna and which were fighting for a reform of the Church.

Pietà - Museum of Opera
del Duomo

Michelangelo spent the last twenty years of his life working in the field of architecture: he completed the construction of the Laurentian Library in Florence, designed Piazza del Campidoglio and, modifying the project of Bramante, built the Cupola of St. Peter's in Rome.
His last sculptures, carried out between 1547 and 1555, developed the subject of the Pietà: the Palestrina Pietà (Academy), the Pietà in the Duomo di Firenze (Museum of Opera del Duomo), the Pietà Rondanini (Milan, Castello Sforzesco).
Although when he died - after having been almost forced to be the artist of several Popes - his mortal remains were claimed by the city of Florence, they were eventually removed from Rome by his nephew in secret.

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